On the night of September 10th, 2001, I was with my book group. The woman who was hosting had just had a harrowing experience, either that day or over the past weekend. She was in her minivan with her kids and they came to a railroad crossing. She’s a conscientious woman, so it must have been one of those situations where traffic is moving and then all of a sudden it’s not moving, because when the lights began to flash and the gates came down she was trapped in a spot that was either on or too close to the tracks with a gate or a car behind her preventing her from backing up. I don’t remember the details. It was a long time ago. She got her kids out of the car in time and, yes, there was damage to the minivan. But everyone was ok, and that’s what was important.
The book we’d just read was Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius. It’s an autobiographical story about a young man and his younger brother, and the way they deal (and don’t deal) with the death of their parents at way too young an age. At least that’s what I think it was about. That’s what it seemed to be about to me.
I remember some details of that night so clearly. Where I sat in the room. That there were cheese sticks served, and that I didn’t eat any. There’s a point in the book where Eggers was justifying some or other unsavory behavior of his, and he says “I am owed.” He means for the loss of his mother. Both his parents, really. And for having to act like a grown up and raise his little brother. And it was that line, that idea, that sent the group off on a discussion about how everything can be going along one way and you can receive a piece of news, or an event can occur, that just changes everything forever. It changes you and how the world seems to you. All of sudden, nothing is the way it was two minutes ago and no matter how much you wish for it, it will never be that way again. How a single event can inform your perception of everything that comes after it.
I was perhaps the most vocal about this idea, because I could really relate to Eggers’ loss and grief and bitterness. Like me, another woman in the group had lost a parent early in life and she didn’t relate to that idea of instant, irrevocable change at all.
I remember someone used the idea of a plane crash as an example of how lives can be dramatically altered in a single moment. We talk like that in book group – about specific events, but also about abstractions.
My book group no longer meets on Mondays. Over the years, we’ve switched nights to accommodate schedules. For the past many years now, we meet on Wednesdays.
I remember Monday, September 10th being a starry night. I remember driving home that night thinking how grateful I was for that group of women in my life. How I wished a little that everyone in the group had shared my feelings about how life can change on a dime. And also how I loved that Eggers book, and loved discussion we’d just had, and loved that I felt safe enough in the world to be able to share how I felt. I thought a lot about how I finally felt safe. Stuff that maybe wouldn’t have seemed eerie or ironic if we'd had our meeting on a Wednesday. On September 12th instead of September 10th.
Although I can’t imagine we would have met that day at all.